- Listening to Old Woman Speak: Natives and AlterNatives in Canadian Literature
Laura Smyth Groening's Listening to Old Woman Speak takes up the challenge of addressing why the appropriation of voice debate developed into an us-versus-them dichotomy that situated prominent Canadian writers such as Timothy Findley and W.P. Kinsella in opposition to Aboriginal writers and performers such as Lee Maracle and Lenore Keeshig-Tobias in a confrontation that sought to determine the validity of the claim to censorship of the imagination. For Groening, the key to understanding this debate resides in representations of colonial history and prevailing aesthetic ideals about the place of Native peoples in Canada. Groening argues that representations of Native peoples circulated by a dominant Euro-Canadian colonial culture depend on unvarying images of the 'Indian' as either 'natural, primitive, and doomed,' and thus 'vanishing' through an immanent cycle of 'death and destruction,' or as civilized and domesticated through an association with gentrified colonial experience and thus 'surviving in an eroded and degraded culture.' Groening claims that because 'taking control of the image of "them" ' and 'handing it to someone else is no solution,' her project seeks to make transparent the 'historical development of a peculiarly Canadian ideological response to the idea of a Native people and to account for the way that response functions as a definitive part of the Euro-Canadian imagination even in postmodern fiction that announces a more revolutionary agenda.' The analysis examines fiction and poetry by canonical Euro-Canadian writers in order to disclose how this writing participates in a Manichean allegory that positions Aboriginal peoples against British colonialists in the project of settler nation-building. Fiction and poetry by John Richardson, Anna Jameson, Susanna Moodie, Joseph Howe, Duncan Campbell Scott, and RudyWiebe represent the main part of the study in its unpacking of the 'cultural baggage associated with the Manichean allegory,' while concluding sections focus on the work of Lee Maracle, Maria Campbell, Beatrice Culleton Mosionier, and Basil Johnston to explore the concept of racial hybridity. Chapters are brief, and no single author is given sufficient space to provide a comprehensive reading of his or her work. Nevertheless, the chapter devoted to Scott's writing that illuminates how 'the power of the imaginary . . . dictates representation' is compelling, as is the analysis of Metis women's writing for its investigation of the 'politics of gender within a racial framework.'
Groening is careful to distinguish her project from previous studies by Leslie Monkman and Terry Goldie, studies that examine the persistence of binary patterns that register 'a clear sense of "them" and [End Page 429] "us"' in the settler-colonial literary paradigm. Groening's analysis builds on and expands this work in productive ways, especially in its treatment of racial purity and racial hybridity. There remains, however, an element of repetition in the canonical works studied here that, in spite of the establishment of post-colonial studies in Canada, does not suggest substantially different reading practices for analyzing the figure of the indigene in its authorization of a settler-colonial social imaginary. Groening's intervention underscores the Manichean allegory fulfilled by representations of the indigene, which she notes 'helps us realize that images of savagery and images of a dead and dying people proceed from the same imaginative structure.' Whether or not this structure may engender a starting point for recovering the voice of indigenous experience within the archive of colonial literary history remains a question that post-colonial critics struggle with and a problem to be answered here.